Western Sahara, to Resume Liberation Struggle on Hold Since 1991
By Ambassador Sidi Omar *
NEW YORK, Feb 25 2021 (IPS) – The question
of Western Sahara, known as Africa’s last colony, has recently gained great
visibility in international media interestingly due to two drastic
The first occurred on 13 November 2020 when
Moroccan forces breached the 1991 ceasefire by attacking Sahrawi civilians who
were demonstrating peacefully in Guerguerat in southern Western Sahara.
The second took place on 10 December 2020
when the outgoing U.S. President Donald Trump made a proclamation declaring
U.S. recognition of “Moroccan sovereignty” over Western Sahara, which Morocco
has been occupying since October 1975.
As expected, Morocco’s breach of the
ceasefire forced the people of Western Sahara under the leadership of their
legitimate representative, the Frente POLISARIO, to resume their legitimate
liberation struggle put on hold since 1991.
At that time both parties, the Frente
POLISARIO and Morocco, under the UN-OAU auspices, mutually agreed on a
ceasefire that came into effect on 6 September 1991.
This arrangement was the first step in a
process leading to the holding of a referendum on self- referendum in which the
people of Western Sahara would choose, without military or administrative
constraints, between independence and integration with Morocco.
To this end, on 29 April 1991, the Security
Council established under its authority the United Nations Mission for the
Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO).
Notwithstanding the ups and downs, in
January 2000 MINURSO was able to establish the list of potential voters for the
referendum thus paving the way for the vote to take place. It was precisely at
that moment that Morocco declared that it was no longer willing to procced with
the self-determination referendum, obviously for fear of losing at the ballot
box. It was as simple as that.
The failure of the UN Security Council to
hold Morocco accountable for reneging on its solemn commitment to the mutually
agreed referendum on self-determination brought the UN peace process in Western
Sahara to a standstill, which continues to date.
Despite Morocco’s complete volte-face, for
almost three decades the Frente POLISARIO maintained its commitment to the
ceasefire and made many—often painful—concessions for the UN peace process to
The almost thirty years’ ceasefire in
Western Sahara was however violently broken when Moroccan forces attacked
Sahrawi civilians on 13 November 2020 forcing the Frente POLISARIO to respond
Morocco’s new aggression has not only put
an end to the UN peace process but has also unleashed a second war that has the
potential to endanger peace and stability in the region. Once again, the UN
Security Council, which has primary responsibility for the maintenance of
international peace and security, has remained silent in the face of Morocco’s
The proclamation made by the outgoing U.S.
President on 10 December 2020 has dealt another heavy blow to the UN peace
process in Western Sahara. It is no secret that Trump’s ill-advised decision
was a quid pro quo for the deal that Morocco concluded with Israel to normalise
their relations—another example of his transactional diplomacy.
Trump’s decision however violates UN
resolutions, including Security Council resolutions that the United States
drafted and approved over the past decades, and upends the traditional U.S.
policy regarding Western Sahara.
It flies in the face of fundamental rules
underpinning the international order that prohibit the acquisition of territory
by force and establish peoples’ right to self-determination and as an
inalienable right and a peremptory norm.
It also hampers the ongoing efforts of the
United Nations and the African Union to achieve a peaceful solution to the
question of Western Sahara, thereby fuelling tension and threatening peace and
stability in the region.
The legal status of Western Sahara is
unequivocally clear. The International Court of Justice (ICJ), which is the
United Nations principal judicial organ, issued an advisory opinion on Western
Sahara on 16 October 1975. The ICJ ruled that there was no tie of territorial
sovereignty between the Territory of Western Sahara and the Kingdom of Morocco.
By rebutting Morocco’s claims of
sovereignty over Western Sahara, the ICJ established clearly that the
sovereignty over the Territory was vested in the Sahrawi people who have the
right to decide, through the free and genuine expression of their will, the
status of the Territory in accordance with UN General Assembly resolution 1514
(XV) of 1960 on the Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial
Countries and Peoples.
The United Nations and the Organisation of
African Unity (now the African Union) as well as the European Union have never
recognised Morocco’s forcible and illegal annexation of parts of Western Sahara
that remains on the UN list of Non-Self-Governing Territories to be
Trump’s proclamation also affirmed the U.S.
support for Morocco’s autonomy proposal. Nonetheless, the so-called Moroccan
“autonomy proposal”, besides its proven illegality, emanates from an autocratic
regime that seeks only to legitimise its forcible acquisition and occupation of
parts of Western Sahara.
The United States should therefore advise
Morocco to address the legitimate grievances of its own people instead of
trying to pursue its expansionism that has had disastrous consequences for the
As a matter of historical fact, Morocco did
not only claim Western Sahara but also Mauritania in 1960s. It was Morocco that
included “the problem of Mauritania” in the agenda of the 50th session of the
UN General Assembly in 1960 on the grounds that Morocco had legitimate rights
over Mauritania. It then took Morocco nine years to recognise Mauritania as an
Morocco moreover used force against Algeria
in October 1963 and Spain (Perejil Island) in July 2002, always in pursuit of
its territorial claims, which demonstrates the real nature of the ruling regime
This also shows the extent to which the
regime owes its survival to territorial conquest as a tool to divert attention
from its deep-rooted domestic legitimacy crisis that had led to two coups
against the monarchy in July 1971 and August 1972.
Morocco’s expansionism is therefore the
root cause of the enduring tension in North Africa and the main obstacle to the
achievement of a united, prosperous, and inclusive Maghreb that brings together
all its nations and peoples.
As expected, strong voices from the US
Congress, civil society, and the political arena, including former US Secretary
of State, James A. Baker III, have expressed their shock and disappointment
regarding the attempt to trade away the self-determination of the people of
They have also called on the incoming
President to reverse Trump’s decision, which is at odds with the new
Administration’s declared pledge to recommit the US to multilateralism. Now the
question is whether President Joe Biden is willing to reverse Trump’s decision
and bring back the United States to its traditional position on Western Sahara.
It is certain that Trump’s proclamation—if maintained—will
not change anything substantially in terms of the realities on the ground and
the legal status of Western Sahara that is determined by the UN resolutions. It
will however put the United States in a rather difficult situation given its
membership of the Group of Friends on Western Sahara and the penholder for
In other words, it will not only cast doubt
on U.S.’s neutrality vis-à-vis the question of Western Sahara but will also
raise the question of whether the United States could continue to play a
constructive role in the UN peace process.
For these reasons, the Sahrawi people
remain hopeful that President Biden would rescind Trump’s proclamation so that
the United States could return to its traditional position on Western Sahara.
The legal and political nature of the issue
of Western Sahara as a decolonisation case is unquestionably clear. Therefore,
the question before the international community, in particular all peace- and
justice-loving countries, comes down to this: do they allow the rule of “might
makes right” to prevail in the case of Western Sahara, and thus allow the
Moroccan military occupation of parts of the Territory to continue with
impunity, or do they defend the fundamental principles underpinning the
existing international order and thus implement UN resolutions on the issue?
The solution of the question of Western
Sahara is clearly defined in successive UN General Assembly and Security
Council resolutions, which call for a peaceful, just, and lasting solution that
provides for the self-determination of the people of Western Sahara.
This means that no solution will prove
either just or lasting if it does not have the consent and full support of the
This support can only be expressed through
a credible, democratic, and genuine self-determination process that gives our
people the opportunity to make their choice among a full range of options
United Nations resolutions, rules of
international law and basic democratic principles all support this
understanding of self-determination and its implementation. It is time the
international community support it, too, not only in words but also in deeds.
POLISARIO Representative at the United Nations